Beaver Bay

Painting of Beaver Bay, c. 1871, showing the schooner Charly docked. (Image: Lake County Historical Society via lakesnwoods.com)

Beaver Bay, 25 miles north of Two Harbors, holds the honor of being the oldest continuously occupied community on the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior. Established in 1856, its story hints at the tenacity, courage, and independent spirit of its pioneers, who claimed land along the Beaver River where the rocky shoreline, poor soil, and dense forests might have discouraged less-hardy souls. Unlike most North Shore communities, this pearl on the string of tourist towns that dot Highway 61 began as a colony of German farmers and artisans likely avoiding mandatory military service, most of them named Wieland.

In 1854 the Treaty of La Pointe was signed, opening the Minnesota side of Lake Superior to development. That October, Thomas Clark of Superior, Wisconsin—accompanied by Robert B. McLean and Batiste Rush—made his way to the mouth of the Beaver River by canoe. Clark was a civil engineer and surveyor from Toledo, Ohio, who would later serve as Probate Registrar and U.S. Court Commissioner for Douglas County. According to author Jessie C. Davis, Clark recorded in his diary observations and sketches “of the coast line, describing streams, bays and harbors, noting agricultural possibilities and impossibilities.” Clark’s favorable impressions of the land led him to have two cabins built and occupied just upstream from the river’s mouth so he could claim the property as the townsite of Beaver Bay in June of 1854.

Christian Wieland, Clark’s Deputy County Surveyor, was apparently so impressed with Clark’s townsite that he urged his entire family and other German immigrants to move from Maumee, Ohio, and build a community at Beaver Bay. The Weilands were originally from Wurtemberg, Germany, where their father operated a successful tannery. The 1850s saw a wave of German immigrants to the U.S.; many left to avoid mandatory military service established after the revolutions of  German states in 1848. In fact, the youngest Wieland brother, August, had his inheritance confiscated by the German government because he had not served in the military. In 1856, the year the North Shore first opened to settlement, three of Christian’s four brothers and their families arrived on the steamer Illinois, the first vessel to navigate the newly opened locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The boat also carried their fellow German immigrants as well as cattle, building supplies, personal belongings, and other necessities for survival. There was no dock, so small skiffs ferried everything and everyone to land.

The Wieland brothers—Christian, Henry, Albert, August, and Ernst—made claims along the Beaver River, each acquiring a homestead of 160 acres. Accompanying them were families named Gilomen, Tischer, Zimmerman, Niggler, Gronowalt, Riechart, Scwab, and others. According to the diary of Reverend James Peet, who visited the community in August 1856, within six weeks of their arrival this enterprising group had “made their land claims, built two shanties, seven houses, chopped twelve acres, four of which they have got into crops, made seven miles of road, and cut twelve tons of wild hay; and they hope to find grass for fifty to one hundred tons.”

Peet spent several nights with Albert Wieland, at first camping near his store. He had disembarked from a mail boat that was heading north because, his diary reports, “there being no families between here and Grand Portage.” So he waited in Beaver Bay for the boat’s return. His is one of the earliest recorded accounts of this settlement, and the minister’s stay was not entirely pleasant for him:

This is to me a lonely Sabbath, far away from the Sanctuary and pious people, among a few Germans. No religious service, because only three or four can understand the English language. Time hangs heavily. Within eight miles are thirteen men, two women and eight children, all Germans. … I have no privileges in this house. I camp out close by the house. They furnish me with provisions which I eat outdoors. Retired to bed on floor of store cabin; slept with Mr. Weiland in his store.”

The Panic of 1857, which all but emptied settlements along the North Shore and the townships that would later become Duluth, didn’t deter the occupants of Beaver Bay. They survived the panic, and even prospered. Within two years of their arrival, the Wieland Brothers opened their sawmill as a commercial enterprise. They later built a grist mill and, as the family had in Germany and Ohio, a tannery. According to the 1860 census, 62 people lived in Beaver Bay (most of them foreign-born), including three-year-old Frederick Wieland, son of Ernst, the first “white child” born in the township—and likely along the entire North Shore outside of what is now Duluth.

The 1854 Treaty of La Pointe not only opened the Minnesota North Shore to settlement, but it also ceded all of remaining land controlled by the Lake Superior Ojibwe, including what is now Northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. The signatory tribes received money and goods and retained hunting, fishing, and gathering rights within this region, and eight Ojibwe reservations were established in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, including the Grand Portage reservation along the Minnesota North Shore near the Canadian border.

Ojibwe affiliated with the Grand Portage Reservation, as well as other Lake Superior Ojibwe, began visiting Beaver Bay in the spring of 1858. But they knew of no “Beaver Bay”—they called the site Gagijiukensikag, which translates to “Place of Little Cedars.” While local natives had long fished and trapped near the mouth of the Beaver River, or Little Cedar River as they would have called it, they had never established homes there. Many who visited were of mixed ancestry, as some natives had earlier intermarried with French voyageurs.

Ojibwe taught their immigrant hosts how to hunt and fish and methods for surviving long, frigid winters. They were hired to build roads, cut timber, and work in the sawmill. According to Davis, a favorite job for the Ojibwe was crewing aboard the Wieland’s schooner Charley, where Captain Albert Weiland “issued his orders in a combination of German, Chippewa, and English.” The Ojibwe learned German and the Germans learned Ojibwe—in many cases before they learned English. Each culture taught the other useful skills. Their children went to school together. Soon they were intermarrying, creating a blended civilization. It was rare: across the nation at the time, few native peoples were welcomed by European settlers.

Many of the Ojibwe at Beaver Bay were members of the Bear Clan, including Chief Moquabimetem, or “Beargrease.” Shortly after 1870, Beargrease moved to Beaver Bay with his wives and children. According to Beargrease biographer Daniel Lancaster, within another decade 41 Ojibwe and 65 whites lived in Beaver Bay. Among them was Chief Beargrease’s son Eshquebe, known as John, who would become famous as the North Shore’s most intrepid mailman. From about 1880 to 1899 John Beargrease and his brothers delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Portage via dogsled in the winter and by canoe when the lake was ice-free. When the Old North Shore Road was complete in 1899, Beargrease lost his business to carriers using horse-drawn stages. Today Beargrease is best known as the namesake of an annual sled-dog race.

In June of 1868 much of Marquette, Michigan, was destroyed by fire. The Wieland’s lumber mill and schooner Charley went to work, milling and delivering the lumber that would rebuild the town. As Duluth began booming the next year, the Wielands set up a lumber yard in Duluth on Minnesota Point. A great deal of timber harvested and milled at Beaver Bay was used to construct Duluth’s early homes and businesses, competing with the Wheeler mill in Oneota until Duluth pioneers J. B. Sutphin and R. S. Munger had their sawmills running in 1870. After the Panic of ’73 brought everything in Duluth to a halt, the Wielands turned to Canada and opened a lumber yard in Port Arthur at Thunder Bay—and slowly began to pull away from the community they had built in Beaver Bay.

In the late 1879s the Weilands returned their focus to Duluth. From 1878 until 1895 they operated a tannery on the site of what is today the Grandma’s Saloon & Deli parking lot in Canal Park.  They reopened their Duluth lumber yard in 1881. In 1889 they built the Wieland block, a commercial building  at 26 East Superior Street designed by Oliver Traphagen. (The building served as the home of French & Bassett Furniture and later the Savoy Theater before becoming the offices of the Duluth News Tribune from 1901 to 1930. French & Bassett returned in 1959, after which a number of furniture stores used the first floor before it became a Goodwill outlet. The building was remodeled in 2002.)

The Wielands were extremely enterprising, but not always successful, and consequently the history of Beaver Bay is wrapped up in speculation of what could have been. During the 1860s Christian Weiland guided Peter Mitchell, sent by a group of Michigan businessman, to what is now Babbitt, Minnesota. Mitchell was searching for gold, silver, and copper, but the trip led to the discovery of iron ore. Wieland apparently tried to interest the Michigan investors in purchasing land near Lake Vermilion for ore development, but they balked. When Charlemagne Tower opened the Vermilion Iron Range in the early 1880s, the Wielands proposed to build an ore dock for Tower’s Duluth & Iron Range railroad at Beaver Bay. Tower instead chose to build his ore dock at Agate Bay, today’s Two Harbors, so no ore dock nor rail line for the Weilands’ town. The D&IR also built a spur from Agate Bay to Duluth, which prompted Lake County citizens to change their county seat from Beaver Bay to what is now Two Harbors in 1886.

The Weilands sold their Beaver Bay sawmill as large lumber companies began clear-cutting the North Shore in the 1890s. Their buildings were torn down in 1905, and the last raft of logs—harvested by the Alger-Smith Lumber Company—left Beaver Bay in 1910. By then commercial fishing had become the community’s chief economic engine. When Highway 1—today’s Highway 61—was constructed in the 1920s, Beaver Bay began evolving into a tourist town. Mrs. Frank Crastner arrived in 1921 and opened the Beaver Bay Lodge just as workman completed the stretch of highway through town. In 1926 a group of wealthy Twin Cities families purchased land along the shore and established the Beaver Bay Club. That same year Arthur Lornston, son of a commercial fisherman, turned his house into a café and installed two gas pumps in the front yard for motorists. By 1931 he had made several additions to the house. By 1960 Lornstrom had sold the café to a man named Berryman, and it became Berryman’s Café. Seven years later, A. Steffan was operating the establishment as the Half Way House.

Other Beaver Bay tourist establishments have included A Bit of Norway restaurant, Fonstead’s resort, the Spruce Bay Motel, the Beaver Bay Trading Post, and of course the Beaver Bay Agate Shop, which began in 1946 and is still operating. Today the community is home to Lemon Wolf Café, Cove Point Crossings restaurant, Camp 61 Bunkhouse restaurant, the Cove Point Lodge, The Green Door (a bar inside a former school house), the Beaver Bay Club, and about 180 local residents who call Beaver Bay home—but apparently none of them named Wieland.

Linda Conradi also contributed to this story.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.